I have not been too keen on institutions. On two separate occasions, I managed to quit seminary. I resonated with the critique that the only thing a seminary was good for was creating more seminary professors. I saw the completion of my M. Div. as little more than a hoop to jump through, an unavoidable pre-requisite for being a pastor. My passion was around issues of justice, particularly around those intertwined sins of racism and classism, issues to which the seminary, with all its bureaucratic trappings, seemed ill-equipped and unwilling to respond. Along the way, I joined an anti-racism team that engaged a rereading of North American history. The institutional capacity to release rampant and at times irreversible damage became all too evident through considering the systemic and systematic conversions of bigotry into the various Jim Crow laws, residential schools, internment camps, and multiple ethnic genocides of the twentieth Century. In the face of such aberrations of human dignity, I quite willingly embraced and espoused anti-institutionalist rhetoric as my own. One of my more Kuyperian-loving professors, who I am quite certain was growing weary of my anecdotal argumentation on these matters, scribbled in the margins of my paper, “Chris, I love your heart. It’s your head I am worried about.”
Perhaps a bit ironically, my journey toward embracing institutions as creationally good and valuable structures within the unfolding of God’s kingdom has come through serving as a pastor in a church. I am not suggesting that this experience has been so rosy that I am now infatuated with institutions. Quite the contrary, churches continue to provide plenty of new anecdotes that could readily further an anti-institutional orientation. I still recoil when recalling how a deacon dismissively responded to a benevolence request by saying, “We’re not set up to help people like this. We help agencies that help people like this.” Yet those instances are the exception. My experience within church systems and structures has helped me discover that institutions have a capacity to participate in the coming of God’s kingdom here and now. And that capacity, even though imperfectly actualized, is far more essential and beneficial than I had imagined possible. I am even willing to suggest that institutions have a calling, a vocation if you will, that is rooted in God’s creational design.
The vocation I have in mind is akin to Fredrick Buechner’s description, where the crossroads of our great joy and the world’s great need intersect. There are certainly other layers to vocation, including competency to engage a specific need, appreciative development of strengths, mutuality or reciprocity between all parties, and appropriate, ongoing contextualization. But for the purposes here, the joy-need intersection will suffice.
I want to propose four initial questions related to discerning institutional vocation. But before identifying those questions, a few observations about a creational grounding for an institutional vocation need to be made.
God’s deliberative act of creating humanity in God’s image has a stated purpose: “so that they may rule” creation (Genesis 1:26). This rule is further elaborated in the second creation account as cultivating life by working and caring (Genesis 2:15) for creation so that it flourishes. Contrary to this vision, our historical tendency has been to talk about bearing God’s image as our highest human calling, suggesting that we evidence this image through exercising our rule over creation. However, the grammar here suggests that the core vocation of humanity is to rule creation, not to image God. Or, rather, that our vocation of ruling creation is the primary way in which we participate in and reflect the image of God.
The broader Reformed tradition in which I am rooted has had a tendency, perhaps even a hyper-tendency, to emphasize the individual participation in this creational image and vocation. We serve others because God’s image is in them; and, we serve others because God’s image is in us. However, our insistence on the dignity of each person on account of their participation in God’s image is often unnecessarily done at the expense of our communal embodiment of God’s image. In the process, our communal vocation of ruling is often distorted into a dominance of one person over other persons; the cultivating work and care for creation called for in Genesis 2:15 is lost.
One of the outcomes of an overly individualist view of bearing God’s image is a preference for individual rights over communal responsibility and a failure to recognize the role that communities play in shaping and upholding those rights. Identity politics and the radical elevation of one person’s particular social location over and against the rest of the community becomes the central focus. Individuals need to be protected from systems and structures that impinge upon their personal preferences. While it is rhetorically convenient in such an environment to blame institutions for allowing accumulations and abuses of power, these accusations frequently fail to recognize the capacity for institutions to also curb injustice and restrain, if not prevent, abuses of power. If we only perceive our participation in God’s image along individual sightlines, we will lose our ability to see our God-created communal responsibility to rule over creation together. The vocational call to cultivate life throughout creation will disappear.
Yet, it is possible to perceive our image bearing and vocation as being simultaneously personal and communal. A robust personal dignity can comfortably and authentically intermingle with a rich communal expression of God’s image and our vocation across time and culture. We can see the trees and the forest together; and, rather amazingly, institutions play a significant role in allowing us to perceive how integral these personal and communal dimensions are with each other.
Since our cultural tendency is to emphasize the personal aspect, we will give our attention here to the communal dimension of our vocation by considering the first two commands given to humanity. The first command (Genesis 1:28) is to be fruitful and increase in number. It’s as if God says, “While involving each one of you, this vocation of ruling is too big for any one of you! All y’all and more of y’all are needed.” (And yes, God at times speaks with a Southern accent.) From the beginning, God’s image is expected to be multigenerational and, as such, carries within it the implication that God intends our human vocation of ruling to be intergenerational. This command begs the question, “What shape might this intergenerational vocation take?”
The second command (also Genesis 1:28) is to fill the earth. The human vocation of ruling is not only intergenerational; it also involves moving beyond the boundaries of the garden. From the beginning, we are a sent people. The Garden of Eden served as the starting point for cultivating life, not as a pristine limitation of our human vocation. In other words, our vocation of ruling over creation requires dynamic applications, or contextualization, into the multitude of environments that cover the face of the earth. This command invites a similar question, “What shape might this sending forth vocation take?”
The last scene of the creation account provides a response to the questions evoked by these two commands. This intergenerational sending forth is given an organizing shape that rests between the individual person and the whole community of humanity in the formation of the first institution: a family. A man is to leave his parents in order to be united with his wife (Genesis 2:24). As Smith noted in his Comment editorial this past fall, fulfilling the first command given to humanity is “to begin—and to inherit—the institution of the family.” That organizing pattern becomes the seed for potentially innumerable expressions of institutional life “begging to be unfurled” across the face of the earth. An institution, as a conduit for carrying out our intergenerational sending forth vocation of cultivating life, is there from the beginning, before the fall.
Surprisingly, the fall and the consequences that follow do not remove our creational vocation, its attendant commands, or the organizing structure of the family. Genesis 3 begins with Adam and Eve in the centre of the Garden. They have not been fruitful and they have not gone forth. The first sin is not one of commission, but of omission: humanity has personally, communally, and institutionally failed to embrace their vocation of ruling over creation through the intergenerational sending forth directives that God gave them. And yet, God’s response to their fall is to reinforce their vocation. The creation, via the serpent, is still subject to human authority and humans are still responsible to work the ground and to multiply. The story of the fall then concludes with Adam and Even leaving the garden and increasing in number. Even though it has become thoroughly distorted and impossibly difficult for them to fulfill, their vocation, including the institutional expression of the family, has not been removed.
While the rest of the story, including the redemptive restoration of our capacity to fulfill our vocation, is left for another time, this creational grounding provides enough foundation to identify four initial questions involved with discerning institutional vocation. For each of these questions, I have included a small example of how that question is being considered within the church I am serving.
How can an institution facilitate or amplify personal participation in our communal vocation of ruling over creation?
God has gathered a fairly significant cluster of people within our congregation who are passionate about environmental care. We have three university professors in environmental science fields, several who work professionally with environmental organizations, and many others who are passionate about backyard gardening and sustainability issues. Environmental care is one of our great joys. One of the questions that we are starting to raise is, “Are there ways for our church to facilitate dialogue and opportunities for these people to collaborate and enhance their work around environmental care that is unique to our church setting?”
How can an institution lead to or further the flourishing of creation “here and now”?
One of the great needs that we have encountered among our neighbours around the church building is for companionship. While it is a small step, our first response to this need came from an elderly member of our church who said, “I can knit,” and then offered to start a knitting group for our neighbours. Several people from the community accepted her invitation and now gather regularly to share life together over balls of yarn. While knitting will never save Detroit (or Hamilton), it does provide a way for members of our congregation to help people—and our church—flourish here and now.
How can an institution incorporate and equip multiple generations?
As we have engaged resources like Hemorrhaging Faith, we have seen how crucial this conversation is for the well-being of the church. Our worship committee has placed a significant emphasis on weaving children and youth into our worship gatherings, including leading parts of our communion litanies, reading scripture, and offering congregational prayers. Our youth discipleship committee is developing a prayer initiative that will partner an older adult with one of our youth for the purpose of facilitating cross-generational interactions.
How can an institution increase the opportunities and capacity for expanding into new areas of creation?
One of the ways we are responding to this question is by expanding our capacity to walk alongside those who are struggling financially. Through our deacons, several of our members have recently been trained by Christians Against Poverty to facilitate a money course, addressing some basics of personal finance from a biblical perspective. This initiative is new terrain for our congregation and moves us away from simply providing crisis response benevolence and toward walking with others in developing new disciplines and patterns.
These questions are not the only questions that will need to be asked in discerning a specific institution’s vocation—or even whether the particular institutional expression ought to exist. Yet, when considered, they can provide ample opportunity to root an institution in the creational space between individual persons and the whole of humanity. Moreover, by attending to the intergenerational sending forth, these questions assist in guarding against some of the omissions that have persistently detracted humanity from fulfilling its vocation.